SÃO PAULO, Brazil – It was an informal conversation that led Luiza Trajano, one of Brazil’s richest women, to reflect on the racism in her country, to recognize her role in it – and to do something about it.
A few years ago, she said, she overheard an accomplished young black businesswoman mention that she had never attended happy hours with coworkers unless her boss explicitly asked her to. to join him. Years of feeling the rejection that many black Brazilians experience in predominantly white backgrounds has taught her to seek clear invitations, the woman said.
Ms. Trajano, who is white, felt a touch of sadness. Then an uncomfortable thought crossed his mind.
“At my birthday parties, there are no black women,” recalled thinking Ms. Trajano. “It’s structural racism which, in my case, was not born out of rejection, but of failure to seek them out.”
This moment of soul-searching for Ms. Trajano, who had transformed a small family business into a retail giant, helped plant the seeds for a bold, acclaimed affirmative action initiative in business, indignation and many introspections in Brazil.
Over the past two years, the state-owned company, called Magazine Luiza, or Magalu, has limited its executive intern program for recent college graduates – a pipeline to high-paying senior positions – to black applicants.
The announcement, in September 2020, generated a deluge of media coverage and commentary. Much of it was critical.
The hashtag #MagaluRacista – which means racist Magalu – has been trending on Twitter for days. A lawmaker close to Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s conservative president, has urged federal prosecutors to open an investigation into the company, arguing the program violates constitutional protections.
But Luiza magazine called this necessary and belated step to diversify its senior ranks and atone for the brutal legacy of racism in Brazil, where slavery was not abolished until 1888.
Ms. Trajano has established herself as the most visible and vocal advocate for her company’s politics.
“Beyond the economic and social aspects, slavery left a very strong emotional imprint, which is a society of colonizers and colonized,” said Ms. Trajano, 70. “A lot of people never felt it was their country.”
Ms Trajano has made waves far beyond corporate spheres by speaking candidly about issues such as race, inequality, domestic violence and failures of the political system. Parties from all walks of life begged her to run for office, seeing in her a rare blend of pragmatism, charisma and intelligence.
“In a world where billionaires burn their fortunes on space adventures and yachts, Luiza is dedicated to a different kind of odyssey,” former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wrote last September in Time magazine, which selected Ms. Trajano as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. “She took on the challenge of building a business giant while building a better Brazil.”
Ms. Trajano was born an only child in Franca, a medium-sized town in the highlands of the state of São Paulo, where an aunt who shares her name opened a small gift shop in 1957.
As the business grew into a small group of retail stores, Ms. Trajano took a job as a saleswoman in one of the stores as a teenager. The experience made her passionate about customer service and corporate culture.
“When I was 17 or 18, I invented little revolutions to invest more in employees,” she said. “I started bringing a psychologist to the store.”
Since then, she has said she has been fascinated by the factors that make employees motivated and dedicated – and those that do the opposite.
She took over as the head of the company in 1991 and oversaw a huge nationwide expansion driven by the company’s mantra: “Making available to many what has been a privilege for a few”.
As Luiza magazine – which sells a bit of everything, including housewares, electronics, clothing and beauty products – grew into a giant with 1,400 stores, Ms Trajano said she was working hard to create a culture in which workers were engaged in the success of the brand. .
On Monday mornings, employees from all of Luiza Magazine’s locations come together in the morning to sing the national anthem, replicating a school tradition Ms. Trajano cherished as a child.
“You need rituals to maintain a strong culture,” Ms. Trajano said in an interview in her glass-walled office at the company’s headquarters in São Paulo.
As retail sales began to evolve online, Ms. Trajano invested heavily in creating a digital marketplace and distribution system as she prepared her son Frederico Trajano to take over the day-to-day management of the business. company in 2016 as Managing Director. She remains president of the board of directors and her most visible figure.
Mr Trajano, 45, said he learned from his mother to take risks and trust his intuition.
“She likes to say, ‘play in the band’, don’t just watch it walk,” he said. “It means learning to become the protagonist of my own story. “
Ms Trajano credited her son with offering the black-only internship program in 2020, but noted that this followed years when she had pointed out that internship classes were predominantly white. The program has not prompted legal action or government action.
Ana Paula Pessoa, a Brazilian business executive who served as CFO of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, said the controversy over the program led to uncomfortable conversations between her peers.
“Every company talked about it and everyone had an opinion on it,” she said. “Opening this discussion is essential because in Brazil we tend to throw things under the table and keep these huge elephants in the room that nobody talks about. “
The company doubled down on the initiative by releasing a 23-minute documentary on the selection process that looks more like a reality show than a corporate promotion. It features applicants who talk about the obstacles they faced in launching their careers and shows some burst into tears when they learn they have been accepted into the program.
Raíssa Aryadne de Andrade Lima, 31, a sustainability analyst from Alagoas state who was admitted to the first class of interns for black professionals, said the work was a transformation for her personally and professionally.
“The best thing about the program is that it opened my eyes to the number of opportunities that were possible for me,” she said.
Ms Trajano’s profile rose in 2019 after Forbes magazine first included her in its list of billionaires. She is uncomfortable with the label, Ms. Trajano said, noting that fortunes like hers can go up and down depending on the performance of stocks.
“I like to do business and when you do that you win and you lose sometimes,” she said.
Ms Trajano has insisted that she does not intend to run for office. But she has become increasingly active in the evolution of political debates through a group of women leaders that she founded in 2013 with the aim of advancing gender parity in all spheres of power. Today, the group has more than 101,000 members.
Group leaders develop long-term action plans to tackle chronic issues in health care, education, housing and the labor market. They also advocate for gender parity in electoral politics, which Trajano said would transform Brazil’s dysfunctional and polarized system.
In early 2021, as the Brazilian government struggled to acquire Covid-19 vaccines and Mr Bolsonaro cast doubts on their effectiveness, Ms Trajano became a relentless champion of vaccinations, mobilizing her network of women leaders to do so. pressure on the government to act quickly and dispel misinformation about the gunfire.
There has been fervent speculation online that Ms Trajano could be a wild card in this year’s presidential elections, possibly as running mate of front-runner Mr da Silva. Although she has categorically ruled out playing such a role, it is clear that Mr Bolsonaro has come to view her as a threat to his re-election prospects.
In November, he seemed to be pleased that the company’s stock price had fallen in recent months amid speculation about a political partnership between Mr da Silva and Ms Trajano, whom the president called “socialist”.
Later that day, when Ms Trajano was asked about the president’s remark, she said she did not find the label offensive.
“I think social inequalities must be tackled,” she said. “If it’s to be a socialist, then I’m a socialist.”